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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 3: Medical History •

Medical History

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Author's response


Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism

by James H. Mills
St. Martins Press (Palgrave MacMillan), 2000

Satadru Sen

I am very grateful to Professor Sen for his detailed analysis of Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism and for identifying the weaknesses and absences in the book. It is especially interesting to have a series of responses from Satadru Sen, as his Disciplining Punishment: Colonialism and Convict Society in the Andaman Islands (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2000) had as its central concern another element of the British system of social control and discipline, that of the Andamans' prison regime. As such, his reflections on the lunatic asylums of British India are very much based on a thorough knowledge of colonial operations after 1857 and are written from within the range of theoretical perspectives that he has developed for analysing their effectiveness and for exploring Indian responses.

He is correct to locate the lunatic asylums within the larger systems of colonialism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the prisons, as in the lock hospitals, the regiments or the schools, many of the British officers in the institutions for those that they deemed mentally ill shared a broad vision of the way that they wanted Indians to be. These officers organised all of these various institutions along lines that they thought would transform those in their power from what they perceived to be disobedient, inefficient and disorderly individuals into those that would of their own accord regulate their functioning so as to make the Empire smooth running and productive. These officers then judged those under their command with reference to these objectives of transformation, so that ‘recovery’ from criminality, illness, insubordination or insanity was indicated by the ability to demonstrate obedience, efficiency and productivity.

Among the techniques that the British used to attempt to effect these transformations was electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) which Professor Sen correctly points out is neglected in this study. ECT seems to have been little used in the mental hospitals of the nineteenth century although there is evidence that medical officers were aware of the disciplinary possibilities of the ‘treatment’ in the prisons at a much earlier stage than Professor Sen imagines. Talking of attempts by prisoners to feign mental illness to escape the rigours of prison life, Surgeon-General Whitwell commented in an article published in 1894 in the Indian Medical Gazette that any such attempt 'is, as a rule, brought to a premature conclusion after a few minutes acquaintance with the interrupted current'. 1 The success of British officers in effecting these transformations is another matter altogether. Professor Sen is right to draw out the fact that there was often resistance or indifference to temper the outcomes but that it was also the Indian responses of compliance and co-operation that ensured success where it did occur. The lunatic asylums, as with the prisons studied by Professor Sen, were staffed by Indians and were filled with Indians and the European presence was limited in the extreme. As such, compliance and co-operation were absolutely necessary for the correct functioning of colonial systems. I am pleased that Professor Sen felt it necessary to dwell on the point made in Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism that it is crucial to explore the agendas of those that did comply and that did ensure the smooth-running of British institutions. It must never be assumed that such people were ‘forced’ to comply and that their co-operation was the result of the successful operations of colonial power. Rather, their reasons for working with the British and for working towards the objectives of the colonisers must be seen as active engagement with new opportunities for well-thought out reasons that originated in their own autonomously arrived at agendas. In other words it must never be taken for granted that their work with the British was the result of subjection or forced collaboration. It is a shame that Professor Sen did not engage with the conclusion of the book in more detail, as it begins to consider what ‘madness’ can tell the historian about the autonomy and about the agency of individuals. This discussion shows how individuals, even in the midst of such a colonial and disciplinary institution as the asylum, can be driven by agendas that take no account of the systems and the power of the coloniser.

Professor Sen is most critical of the book when he looks at its treatment of the generation of colonial knowledge at the asylums. While he agrees with my approaches and is enthusiastic about the subjects that I trace he flags up a number of instances where he feels that I have not gone far enough in my investigations. To a certain extent I agree with him on this and can offer correctives. His criticism that the discussion of the cannabis debates and statistics is ‘incomplete’ is valid in as much as there is a much larger story to be told here. However, I necessarily had to limit the extent to which I explored this in the volume under discussion as the book had as its focus the mental hospitals of India rather than the government scares about cannabis users. The aspect of the cannabis issue that I focused on was therefore that which directly involved the asylums and I feel that I thoroughly demonstrated that the institution was the source of these scares as it provided knowledge about an apparently dangerous class of drug user and translated anxieties about such a dangerous class into statistics. The latter guaranteed government attention as numbers had become the meta-narrative of colonial discourse after 1857.

The impact of these statistics and this knowledge is hinted at in the book, as it mentions both the Government of India survey into the question of cannabis users of 1871/2 and the Parliamentary Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1893/4. However, to have followed the cannabis story further would have been out of place in a book that had as its focus the lunatic asylum system of nineteenth-century India. The subject of hemp narcotics goes forward into the twentieth century, involves prohibition and economic policy, international law and the League of Nations and indeed still resonates in UK legislation to this day. This is a separate study in itself and while Professor Sen is right to want to know more I am not sure that Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism would have been the place to provide him with the rest of the history of the subject. However, thanks to the funding of the ESRC and the Wellcome Trust for the History of Medicine I am currently engaged in following the cannabis issue generated by the asylums of India beyond the contents of the chapter in the book under consideration here and will publish the results of this research in 2002 with Oxford University Press under the title Cannabis Britannica: the Social and Political History of Cannabis and the British, 1800-1928.

Professor Sen is also right to ask for more on the place of the post-mortem in the generation of colonial knowledge and indeed for wondering about the extent to which Indian conceptions of mental illness informed British constructions of the ‘mad’ Indian in this period. I more than agree with him that my own references to the post-mortem, and indeed David Arnold’s examples, do not fully satisfy the need to know more about these medical rituals in the colonial system and regret that space in the book did not allow a fuller consideration. The post-mortem in colonial contexts deserves a study in its own right and I hope that the instances that I provide can go some way to stimulating more research into this subject.

As for the relationship between Indian and European conceptions of mental illness and the extent to which there has been cross-fertilisation, again I can only point to further research in the area. I am currently engaged on a research project in conjunction with Professor Sanjeev Jain, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences at Bangalore, and with Professor Purushottama Bilimoria, a philosopher at Deakin University in Melbourne, that seeks to explore this very issue. What it is possible to state already is that there are two possible levels on which this cross-fertilisation occurred. First of all at the theoretical level, it seems that by the end of the nineteenth century Indian medical students were beginning to engage with English-language writing on psychiatry and on the mind and were seeking points of contact between Indian and Western conceptions of mental health and mental functioning. These students were the superintendents of asylums by the 1920s and their writings provide fascinating possibilities.

Cross-fertilisation may also have occurred in practice rather than in theory. As already stated, the staff at all of the mental hospitals were Indian, and below the Sub-Assistant Surgeon who was in day-to-day charge of the institutions few would have had any training in Western medical systems. As such, the ways in which the instructions of the British superintendent were interpreted and understood may well have been less than perfect and much improvisation seems likely. There therefore remains the possibility that many Indian approaches to mental illness were being mixed in with the incompletely translated British ideas and as such what existed in practice at the asylums was a hybridised psychiatric system. The relationship between Indian and European ideas and conceptions of the mind and its (mal)functioning, at both the theoretical and the practical levels, promises to be a rich source for exploring the genesis of both colonial and medical discourses.

In short, I am pleased that Professor Sen found the content of the book to be well researched and to be both innovative and valuable and that his major criticisms are of the omissions from the volume rather than of the nature of that which is included. I hope that he can in part be satisfied with my defence that I was very much aware of the omissions that he identifies and in my ongoing research agenda am going some way to investigating the issues that he felt needed to be drawn out in greater detail.

April 2001

  1. R. Whitwell, 'Notes on the Treatment and Management of Lunatics in Jails', in Indian Medical Gazette, xxviii (1894), 363.Back to 1

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